Debate over toothy interlopers

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Mountain lions and wolves may or may not be in Maine. The jury is still out. But these wild carnivores aren’t the only toothy interlopers that have Maine state biologists scratching their heads. Northern pike and muskies are making their presence felt in an increasing number of Maine waters. Most of them probably got here by being illegally introduced by so-called “bucket stockers.”

Northern pike are now commonplace in at least three lakes in the Belgrades. This winter, according to outdoor writer Bob Leeman, at least a dozen northern pike were caught through the ice at Pushaw Lake in Glenburn, not far from Bangor.

A Fish and Wildlife spokesman says that some of the Pushaw pike have been radio tagged in order to follow their migrations via radio telemetry.

There is every reason to believe that it is just a matter of time before pike become commonplace in the Penobscot River. This will vastly complicate the Atlantic salmon recovery efforts, wouldn’t you think?

Farther north in the St. John River, muskies are really taking hold. These fish reportedly got their start in Canada and migrated to Maine a number of years ago. Although they have become a popular game fish in Aroostook County, the muskie pose the same threat as the northern pike do to Maine’s traditional trout and salmon fisheries. In Aroostook, the Fish River chain is a jewel watershed for trout and salmon and could be the next stop for migrating muskies. What a sad day that will be.

What should we do?

Maine sportsmen seem divided about the pike-muskie issue. It seems that Maine anglers either love em or loathe em. And, what about the scientific community, the state fisheries biologists who have responsibility for preserving our native fish and managing a viable sport fishery? Neither Maine nor New Brunswick recognize the muskie as a sport fish. According to freelance writer Roger Keim, Maine’s 2002 Muskie Management Plan lists the following as stated objectives: 1) prevent the spread of muskies in Maine; 2) reduce the impact of muskies on Maine’s traditional sport fishery; and 3) reduce angler interest in current muskie sport fisheries.

This last goal, reducing angler interest, may be spitting into the wind. Fort Kent recently announced that the 3rd Annual Fort Kent Muskie Fishing Derby will be held Aug 12 and 13. The 2006 purse is set at $10,000 with a possible $50,000 purse for catching a tagged fish. This is a novel way to reduce angler interest in “unwanted” muskies.

Speaking of contradictions, a Maine sportsman, who called in last week to my Sunday night radio program, raised this provocative question. “If state biologists are trying to get rid of these fish and restore Maine’s threatened salmon and trout waters, why in the heck have they imposed bag limits and length minimums on northern pike in three lakes in the Belgrades? You would think that they (the biologists) would pray that the unwanted Pike got fished out.”

As inconsistent as it seems, the pike regulation on Messalonskee Lake reads as follows: “Daily bag limit on northern pike: 2 fish; minimum length limit on northern pike: 24 inches.”

My caller asks a thoughtful question. It is one that I put to Peter Bourque, Augusta’s veteran fisheries biologist/administrator.

“It’s not a policy that we agree with or like,” says Bourque. “A number of years ago, the department came under a lot of political pressure from area anglers and clubs to impose some regulation on those pike. This summer, during our annual fisheries meeting, we hope to eliminate the regulations on pike altogether.”

Talk about being stuck on the horns of a dilemma. The Fish and Wildlife Department is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

From a policy-making standpoint, though, the state fisheries folks have, by capitulating to the pro-pike crowd, allowed themselves to look as confused and divided as the sportsmen themselves are about these toothy interlopers. Whatever the department decides to do this summer with respect to Maine’s illegal fish aliens, it needs to address the problem with clarity and resolve.

Bag limits and length minimums have only one purpose that I know of, and that is to protect a given species of fish. A bag limit on pike can be interpreted as a tacit admission by he department – protests to the contrary – that these fish, however unwelcome, are here in Maine to stay.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal.He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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